Liverpool logs crucial win over Manchester City; more EPL
Liverpool marches on -- It is 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster and 24 years since Liverpool won the last of its 18 league titles.
For Liverpool, and its fans, Sunday's showdown with Manchester City was bound to be an emotional and tense afternoon. The league's fast starters quickly settled the nerves. After just six minutes, Raheem Sterling, just 19, scored a goal of such mature calm and intelligence that it probably booked his ticket to Brazil.
Martin Skrtel added a second after 26 minutes and Liverpool could have scored two or three more before half time.
Yet Sterling's display epitomized a team that has grown up far faster than anybody expected. He was both precocious and sloppy. Early in the second Liverpool's defense seemed to suddenly look down and suffer an attack of vertigo.
City suddenly began to match the dazzling speed at which Liverpool had played. David Silva found his dancing shoes and scored one goal before provoking Glen Johnson into poking the equalizer into the Liverpool net. If the referee, Mark Clattenburg, had seen Skrtel punching a ball in the penalty area, hope might have died even in the stoutest Liverpool heart.
Instead, City, and, most surprisingly, its defensive rock, cracked. Vincent Kompany sliced a clearance into the path of Philippe Coutinho who buried the chance.
Liverpool won, 3-2.
The Reds are two points ahead of Chelsea and seven clear of City, which has played two fewer games. That creates a paradoxical situation. Chelsea, the second-place team and the league's big-game specialist, still has to visit Anfield.
If Liverpool wins all its games, it will win the league. If both Chelsea and Manchester City win all their games, City wins the league.
On Sunday, Liverpool could both mourn and celebrate.
"Emotional! Emotional!" was how Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain described the afternoon.
Gerrard had tears in his eyes as he faced the Sky TV cameras. His cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, just 10, was the youngest Hillsborough victim. "That meant so much."
"Biggest statement we've made so far," Gerraid said. "That was the longest 90 minutes I've probably ever played in. Felt like the clock was going backwards at some points in that game."
In 16 seasons at Liverpool, Gerrard has yet to win the league. He has dragged Liverpool to one unlikely European title. At times in the second half on Sunday, he seemed to be the one Liverpool player who was not losing his head.
After the game he brought his teammates together and harangued them in an on-field huddle.
"None of your business," he replied when asked what he'd said
When the interviewer attempted to point out that Liverpool would win the title if it won all its matches, Gerrard kept interrupting
"It's not ours. It's not ours. It's not ours," he repeated.
Gerrard wants this so badly, you can feel it through the TV screen. But he's also terrified it will slip away.
The silence of the past: It was difficult to decide what was more moving as Liverpool Football Club commemorated the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough.
The gradual swelling of the Anfield anthem 'You'll Never Walk Alone' was charged with emotion and anger. The absolute, eerie quiet during the minute's silence that followed was, in its way, at least as eloquent.
Some held signs demanding "Justice," although, of course nothing can undo what happened on April 15, 1989 or restore to life the 96 who, as the public address announcer on Sunday said, "went to a football match and never came back."
The long legal and moral battle continues between supporters and families of the victims against the police, politicians and their supporters in the media who placed the blame on the fans. Yet the victors are clear. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is busy ascribing the last morsels of blame to police officers.
In a way, the weekend was a not just a commemoration of the 96 but also a celebration of the rehabilitation of English fans. Hillsborough occurred in the shadow of decades of violence in and around stadiums, most notoriously the Heysel disaster. The authorities treated fans as the enemy. They penned them in cages with no easy escape and that led to the murderous crush at Hillsborough.
Today, Premier League stadiums are family-friendly places. The fences have gone, replaced by assigned seating, security cameras and more intelligent policing. But there are other factors.
Of the Hillsborough 96, 48 were males aged between 14 and 22. Three more were girls aged between 15 and 21. That demographic no longer makes up anything like 50 per cent of Premier League crowds. The post-Hillsborough change to all-seater arenas allowed the clubs to price the young males who were seen as the problem out of the stadiums.
Yet the weekend also suggested that it is more than simply high-tech security and demographic engineering that has transformed the nature of English soccer crowds. A minute's silence at a match has always carried an element of risk. But as Hillsborough was remembered across the Premier League and at the FA Cup semi-finals, it was striking how few fans at other games broke the silence. Yet, at the 10 games, nearly all the fans repaid the trust. That would not have happened 25 years ago.
One question is how much trust the authorities are prepared to show in return. Crowds can still be hostile, as the fans at Liverpool showed as Manchester City fought back. But it is generally controlled aggression. The atmosphere late in the game at Anfield, with the Kop on its feet, was a reminder of what English soccer lost when it went to all-seater stadiums.
"Wonderful atmosphere," Brendan Rodgers said after the game. "On TV it probably sound loud but down on pitchside it was incredible."
Yet, at some Premier League grounds silence seems to be the rule rather than a minute-long exception.
Several Premier League clubs, led by Aston Villa, Hull, Swansea and, reportedly, Manchester United, are lobbying for the return of standing areas. There are financial reasons for this, but what the clubs are also saying is that they believe they can now even trust the young males who have been banished.
Such a move does carry risks but it will complete the rehabilitation of the fans since Hillsborough.
The art of the minimal: Let's start with a curious stat from Chelsea's 1-0 victory at Swansea on Sunday.
Before the match, Phil Dowd had shown more yellow cards than any other referee in the Premier League. When he booked Chico Flores of Swansea after 13 minutes for knocking over Willian it was his 99th of the season. Dowd waited barely three minutes before hitting the century mark, showing yellow to Flores, again. That's 100 yellow cards in 22 matches, though the red card that naturally followed was only the third Dowd has shown.
It's doubtless that the reason he will give in his match report is that Flores tripped André Schürrle. The real reason was criminal stupidity. What was Flores thinking, if he thinks at all, as he committed the foul that was guaranteed to earn him his second red card in a month?
Here's a second stat: Chelsea played more than 74 minutes against 10 men and managed three (yes THREE) shots on goal. Swansea managed four.
The difference was that while Petr Cech dealt with everything Swansea and Wilfried Bony threw at him, Michel Worm, a goalie with a World Cup runners-up medal, let a low shot by Demba Ba squirm under his hands in the 68th minute. Perhaps he was taken by surprise by a shot on target.
It's not as if Chelsea didn't try to attack. Needing to match the Liverpool result and facing 10 men, José Mourinho actually played two strikers in the second half.
The finishing was awful. Chelsea had 23 attempts that did not hit the target. That does not include some spectacular air shots, notably from Samuel Eto'o.
"We weren't patient," John Terry, the Chelsea captain told Sky TV, before summing up the Mourinho philosophy: "We wasn't at our best but we got the three points."
A losing gamble for Norwich: After Norwich lost at home to West Brom last weekend to slip to 17th, the club's directors looked at the fixture list and pressed panic.
The club's last four games are against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Gulp!
Victory over the club immediately below it, Fulham, on Saturday would give it an eight-point cushion on the bottom three (assuming Cardiff didn't win at Southampton) and, in all probability, ensure safety.
So, Norwich fired manager Chris Hughton, who seemed to have lost his ability to inspire the team. It appointed Neil Adams, who had acquired a reputation as a motivator with the youth team.
The gamble failed. At Craven Cottage on Saturday, Norwich lost, 1-0. Hugo Rodallega scored the only goal after 40 minutes to give Fulham a second straight victory.
Norwich is just two points ahead of Fulham and, since Cardiff did win, 1-0, at Southampton, three points ahead of the Welsh club.
"We are in it, without a doubt," Adams told the BBC. "We are perilously close."
"We've got four huge games against four of the best teams in Europe, not just in England," he said.
Perhaps motivation is not the problem. On Saturday, Norwich dominated early on. It hit the bar and forced two outstanding saves from David Stockdale, the first from a clever flick by Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
The Dutchman, the club's record signing, has not scored since opening day. He is not the only expensive striker signed from abroad to have contributed little this season. Roberto Soldado, Dani Osvaldo, Iago Aspas, Libor Kozak, Andreas Cornelius, Yannick Sagbo and Jozy Altidore, to name a few, are also on a list that suggests a lot of highly-paid people don't know what they are doing. Yet van Wolfswinkel is emblematic of Norwich's biggest problem. It has scored fewer goals than any other Premier League team.
The directors can hit the panic button, but the players need to hit the net.
In the depths, something stirs: While Norwich must feel the trap door opening beneath its feet; Fulham can see the light from the safety hatch above. It will be buoyed by the knowledge that it also made "the great escape" in 2007-8.
The victories by Fulham and Cardiff on Saturday, will not only fill Norwich with terror but will be causing anxiety at the three clubs perched just above the Canaries: Aston Villa, Swansea and West Brom.
In 2008, Fulham was mathematically relegated when it trailed by two goals at Manchester City in the third-last match. It came back to win 3-2. It then won its last two games to reach 36 points and escape on goal difference.
That season, Fulham benefited from a change of coach, axing Lawrie Sanchez and hiring Roy Hodgson on December 28.
This season, it waited until February before calling the fire brigade. It hired Felix Magath, the German son of a US serviceman. He had built a reputation in Nuremberg, Bremen, Frankfurt and Stuttgart for pulling teams out of the Bundesliga relegation zone before quickly driving everyone crazy and getting fired.
On Saturday, Magath could bask in the special pleasure an undeserved victory gives.
"I am happy with the win," he told the BBC before adding: "Norwich were the better team but we had a very good goalkeeper who saved us from defeat."
The same could be said of Cardiff, which was outplayed at Southampton but was saved by goalie David Marshall and wasteful finishing from Southampton.
"We got that little bit of luck that you need in a game," Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told Eurosport,
"I am kaput," Magath said on Saturday after a draining afternoon.
Actually, that might be Norwich.